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Michael Jordan turns 50 on Sunday. In celebration, we’ve decided to delve into 50 remarkable and hopefully indelible moments from MJ’s storied career.
10. Scoring 69 points against Cleveland, a career-best
The 1989-90 season was Phil Jackson’s first as Chicago Bulls head coach, and although he didn’t implement strict triangle offense sets into Chicago’s attack right away, the team was well on its way toward running what Jordan called “Tex’s [Winter] equal-opportunity offense.” By late March, and the team’s 69th contest of the season, the 46-23 Bulls were due to play the disappointing Cleveland Cavaliers in Richfield Arena.
The Cavs were under .500 at the time due to a series of injuries, and recovering from the shock that hit 11 months before when Jordan’s famous game-winner knocked the Cavaliers out of the first round of the playoffs. By March 28, though, the team was fully healthy save for high-flyer Ron Harper, and ready to get back at the Bulls team that upset the favored Cavs in the previous year’s playoffs. After an early hard foul on Jordan drew cheers from the Cleveland fans, MJ was a bit put off.
Put off, and ready to go to work. Mostly, as you’ll see despite his staggering 37 shots, within the context of the soon-familiar triangle offense. Watch:
The final tally? Those 37 shots and 23 free throw attempts led to 69 points. He pulled in 18 rebounds, seven on the offensive end, with six assists, four steals, a block, and just two turnovers despite seeing the ball swung his way so much over 50 minutes in the overtime win.
Jordan’s scoring average, even in the “equal-opportunity” offense, actually went up that season. His high-point as a scorer didn’t come when Doug Collins employed his “get it to Michael and get the hell out of the way”-offense, or when Collins allowed Jordan to play point guard and make all the decisions, or when Stan Albeck and Kevin Loughery could only laugh and shake their heads as Jordan dragged lottery teams to the playoffs based mostly on his scoring exploits.
No, it came within the new, “equal-opportunity offense.” And against the hated Cavaliers, to boot.
— Kelly Dwyer
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9. The 1982 NCAA Championship game-winner against Georgetown
If Portland Trail Blazers supporters cringed when Michael Jordan emerged as the greatest basketball player of his generation because their team passed over him in the NBA draft, North Carolina State fans can definitely empathize.
Their team failed to land Jordan out of high school even though he idolized David Thompson as a youth and grew up rooting for the Wolfpack.
North Carolina coach Dean Smith and his staff managed to wrest Jordan away from their rival in part because they discovered the Wilmington native before any other ACC program.
They made landing Jordan their top priority when he dominated at Smith's basketball camp the summer before his senior year. Then, they out-recruited the rest of the ACC after other schools became aware of Jordan's talent when he emerged as the best player at the prestigious Five-Star Camp in Pittsburgh later that summer.
"When I first saw him, he jumped out at me because of his athleticism and competitiveness," then-North Carolina assistant coach Bill Guthridge told me last Feburary. "I thought we should recruit him, but I didn't know how good he would be."
Jordan rewarded the Tar Heels for their faith in him with a brilliant freshman season capped by one of the most famous shots in NCAA tournament history. In a star-studded national title game that also featured Patrick Ewing and James Worthy, Jordan sank a left-wing jumper with 17 seconds to go to deliver North Carolina a 63-62 victory over Georgetown.
If the scars from watching a former Wolfpack fan lead the hated Tar Heels to a national title eventually healed for NC State supporters, Jordan ripped them open again three years ago.
The man who Jordan had present him at the hall of fame in 2010 was none other than David Thompson.
— Jeff Eisenberg
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8. “Like Mike”
This song as good as a song created for a commercial about flavored sugar water turning people into Michael Jordan can be.
— Eric Freeman
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7. A playoff-record 63 points against the Boston Celtics in 1986
Up until April 20, 1986, Michael Jordan’s second season was known for all the wrong reasons. Two and a half games into the year he broke his left foot in a contest against the Golden State Warriors. Healing took longer than expected, so much so that the new Chicago Bulls front office (featuring owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Jerry Krause) were rumored to want Jordan to rest his potentially Bill Walton-like fracture in order to save their star, and grab a lottery pick as a side benefit. It wasn’t the worst idea even if true, though Jordan hated every bit of it and told the Bulls as much.
Chicago did sneak into the playoffs, though, with a miserable 30-52 record. Their opponents in the Boston Celtics featured the best record in the NBA that season in 67-15, and they remain a team some consider to be the greatest of all time. You can banter back and forth about the best single-year squads from the dynasty era 1960s Celtics, 1980s Lakers, 1990s Bulls or forever-Spurs; but everyone knows this Celtic team was the best of this particular Boston lot.
As such, the Bulls were quite the underdog; what with that 37-win difference in record. And the team, overall, played as expected — losing in three quick games to the eventual champs. But not before, in a Game 2 performance in Boston Garden, Michael Jordan went off for a record 63 points in a playoff game. It was a startling display. Watch:
Jordan scored his 63 points on 22-41 shooting, with six assists, five rebounds, three steals, two blocks and four turnovers in 53 minutes of double-overtime play. All of this was against the NBA’s top-ranked defense, mind you. And MJ may have had more, as well, had teammate Orlando Woolridge not missed 18 of 27 shots from the field.
“I think,” Larry Bird said after the game, “it’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
— Kelly Dwyer
* * *
6. The 1988 Slam Dunk contest
If there is a better summation than the one from ‘Dazzling Dunks and Basketball Bloopers,’ then I remain unaware.
“48 to tie, 49 to win … 50.”
— Kelly Dwyer
* * *
5. The “Flu Game”
To a certain type of Bulls fan, pregame news of Michael Jordan’s widdle tummy bug before Game 5 of the 1997 Finals was met with a shrug. For years we’d braved Chicago winters all week in time to tune into WGN’s Saturday night showing of a Bulls home game, or some SportsChannel Tuesday night affair, only to hear about this terrible flu or cold that Jordan was working through. He’d go out and dominate, win the game for the hometown crowd, and give a stuffy-nosed interview to Dan Roan afterward. When my mother told me Jordan was suffering from the flu before Game 5, I can recall my response as clear as day some 16 years later:
“Good. He’ll drop 40.”
That’s what we were used to. What we weren’t used to was this. I was wrong, of course. Because Jordan dropped only 38.
MJ was ashen. Gray all over and looking winded and barely functional even in the first quarter. He still attempted to glide through those triangle sets, instinct and muscle memory have a hard time falling prey to influenza, but his game was leaden. The shots were going in, but to this day and even with that touch I don’t know how.
And Jordan needed to shoot. Scottie Pippen was playing through a soft tissue injury in his left foot that prevented him from pushing off and getting lift on his shots, gutting through but also watching as his shooting stroke had been altered by an injury that would keep him out of next season until January. Dennis Rodman had very little lift due to a sprained MCL, Brian Williams was still out of shape after taking nearly all of the season off, and the Bulls didn’t have many other offensive options behind their weary top scorer.
So Jordan started moving, collecting, and firing. He finished with 38 points on 27 shots, with seven rebounds, five assists, three steals, three turnovers, and the game-clinching three-pointer hit in his 44th minute of action. Pippen cradled Jordan as they found their way back to the Chicago bench, and the Bulls had survived a trip to Utah without the home team securing the mid-series sweep.
Two nights later, Jordan and Steve Kerr connected …
… and Chicago had the 1997 title.
— Kelly Dwyer
* * *
4. The shot over Sam Perkins in 1991
Chicago Stadium was a nervous place heading into Game 2 of the 1991 NBA Finals. There was a distinct feeling in the city and amongst Bulls fans that the Bulls were once again going to have to pay dues – losing dues – to yet another older ex-champion on its way toward a ring, as was the case in the team’s losses to Boston and Detroit in four out of the previous five years. Down 0-1 to the Lakers and working without home-court advantage, it was feared that Magic Johnson and company would create humbling losses in five out of six years, and that a ring may have to wait for yet another season.
The Bulls, just inches away from taking Game 1, apparently shared no such fears. The team came out sporting a wicked brand of defense and ball movement and immediately running out to an early lead. As Jordan bashed away, he started connecting on shot after shot at one point making 12 field goals in a row.
As he attempted his 13th, a potential right-handed finger roll, “long-armed Sam Perkins” seemed poised to alter Jordan’s move. So he switched to his left hand, and tossed it off the glass. No bigs. Take a look:
It was move so startling and perfect that Bulls fans attending the contest – without smartphones at their disposal or even a JumboTron replay screen in the Chicago Stadium scoreboard – probably felt like getting the rest of the blowout Game 2 out of the way just to be able to go home and catch the highlight again and again on that night’s televised roundup.
Former Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene, who was at times prone to mythologizing Jordan to an absurd degree in his 1992 book "Hang Time," still penned this rather evocative take on the reaction to the shot, as he sat in the Chicago Stadium press box:
“In the press box, a dozen writers stood up without a word and walked briskly to the TV monitor that was tuned to the NBC broadcast. That swift, reflexive silent walk was the great tribute they could pay to what they had just seen. There was no time to discuss it with one another; they knew they had just witnessed a basketball moment they would remember for the rest of their days, and now they wanted to make sure they hadn’t imagined any of it. They stood in front of the TV set, not looking at the court, and watched the replay again and again and again.
Somewhere down below on the floor of the Stadium something or other may have been going on. The writers had their backs to it. Within the next year, Jordan’s shot would be replayed on various sports broadcasts and game intros literally thousands of times; it would become a new logo for the beauty of professional basketball. Now it was just a few seconds old, and the writers stared at the monitor, making sure that it had been real.”
Jordan finished with 33 points on 15-18 shooting and 13 assists. Suddenly, the Chicago Bulls were in a best-of-five to win the NBA championship, with all the momentum on their side.
— Kelly Dwyer
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3. “The Shot,” against Cleveland in 1989
As the story goes, few gave the Chicago Bulls a chance to down the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the 1989 playoffs, and when Jordan’s game-winner in the deciding Game 5 capped off that series it ranked as a major upset. Looking back on the series and the origin of those predictions, how could anyone have bet against this Bulls team?
After all, they’d downed the Cavs the year before in the opening round of the playoffs, with Jordan averaging over 45 points in the five-game series. A year later, with Bill Cartwright now on the roster and another season under Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant’s belts, why would things be any different?
Well, the 1988-89 season happened.
The Bulls won three fewer games, odd for a club full of emerging young players. Doug Collins’ attempts at making a point guard out of Michael resulted in great stats – 32.5 points, eight rebounds and a career-high eight assists – but only 47 wins in a tough Eastern conference. More damning, the Bulls lost all five regular-season contests to the Cavaliers that year. And worst of all? As NBA scribes were prepping their first-round predictions, an embarrassing Cleveland defeat of the Bulls on the last night of the regular season was made all the more startling when it was revealed that Cleveland rested its two best players – Brad Daugherty and Mark Price – and still pulled off the win.
Five days later, Chicago had wrested home-court advantage away from Cleveland with a Game 1 win behind Jordan’s 31 points and 11 assists. And exactly two weeks after the last night of the regular season, with the deciding Game 5 in the balance, Jordan pulled off the killer:
“Sweep,” Jordan yelled at the press table midway through Game 1 to those that had predicted a Cleveland romp, “my butt.”
— Kelly Dwyer
* * *
2. Jordan’s final shot as a Bull, against Utah in 1998
It wasn’t just that having Michael Jordan on your side was luxury enough as a Bulls fan. It was the way you could map out the final seconds of any close contest, with the assurance (even if the shots rimmed out) that a make here, stop there, and make here could turn any three-point deficit in the waning minutes into a win for the red and black. It wasn’t hubris or even misplaced optimism. It was just … Jordan. We had Jordan.
Down three points to Utah with under a minute left in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, the Bulls came out of a timeout with a quick hit Jordan drive and finish that took just a few seconds off of the dwindling clock, forcing a one-possession game and assuring that the Bulls wouldn’t have to foul the Jazz in order to get the ball back. Jordan, who had been “giving a lick and promise” to defense all game according to Bulls assistant Tex Winter (that is to say, “takin’ it easy”) decided not to clear the strong side when the ball was entered to Jazz forward Karl Malone on the next possession. A dangerous gambit in an era of stronger illegal defense rules, Malone’s ability to pass, and Jazz guard (native of suburban Chicago) Jeff Hornacek’s ability to hit daggers from 24 feet away.
Malone never saw what was coming. Jordan stole the ball and headed up court. Buoyed by his coaching staff’s refusal to call timeout, and influenced by the same staff’s earlier insistence that he start following through better on his weary long jumpers, this happened:
There’s nothing left to describe, after this. The image – what one act can do to two sides and so many people – is enough:
— Kelly Dwyer
* * *
1. The first championship
Unless you were from the Chicago area, or a Chicago Bulls fan, or some combination of both, it’s hard to overestimate how much Chicago’s Game 5 win over the Los Angeles Lakers counted for.
This wasn’t some 100-game hike from October to June, or the culmination of a two-year turnaround based off a free-agent bonanza, or a recent expansion team getting over the hump with its first great lottery pick prize. No, this was the end of decades of frustration. This was a city that couldn’t even keep an NBA team until the late 1960s, and one that could barely fill its legendary stadium just a decade after.
Toss in Michael Jordan, who for all his teammates’ failings and youth seemed to be playing at a championship level in just his first season, and even a championship level team (despite its second-round ouster) in his fourth. That fourth season was 1987-88, when the organization ignored all calls for ready-made helpers or veteran talent, instead banking on GM Jerry Krause as he went all-in on a pair of rookie projects in Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen. That year was followed by the team’s first meeting and loss at the hands of the Pistons, and the summer that saw the team’s dealing of its second-best player (and Jordan’s best friend to this day) Charles Oakley for a brittle backup center in Bill Cartwright that was known more for missing games than covering lanes.
Along the way, Chicago hired a head coach in Doug Collins whose previous experience was working as a broadcaster for Arizona State games. It then hired Phil Jackson – you remember, that hippie from the Knicks? – who was a few years removed from coaching in the Puerto Rican league for extra scratch after a falling out with his CBA bosses. All the while Jordan was just tossing himself up against that Piston wall. Just waiting for it to crack. Just hoping he could find the seam, that daylight that tended to appear when MJ played against every other team, but just couldn’t come up with when it counted against Detroit.
In 1991 he found it, with help. And finally the extra klieg lights and Finals logo and extra crush of media descended on Chicago, because they earned home court over Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers. The NBA’s final round wouldn’t start in the famed Boston Garden or Detroit’s sparkly-new Palace of Auburn Hills or the Fabulous Forum. No, it was here. HERE, in Chicago. Which made no sense and all the sense in the world.
And in Game 1, as his two hours’ worth of “can you believe we’re in the Finals?”-destiny suggested, Jordan was set to secure the win with a patented jab-step jumper, and he missed. And they lost. And the homecourt advantage went to the Fabulous Forum. And it just felt like it was happening, all over again. Something everyone had to wait for, again. Fair, but painful.
The Bulls won four straight after that. Two of the games were laughers, and the pivotal Game 3 was decided by a Jordan jumper not unlike the one that rimmed out in Game 1. All the Forum gold that tended to blur the eyes of both opponents and onlookers seemed like just another color. Watch the videos online. All you see is Chicago’s red.
Just as painstakingly deliberate as it had been taken away from the Bulls in years past as the team slowly inched closer toward that breakthrough, this dominance over Los Angeles was the opposite. It was swift and shocking; if not entirely appropriate. By the time Game 5 rolled around, and Jordan answered Phil Jackson’s “who’s open?” question with “John Paxson,” this was Chicago’s league. Chicago’s game. It would remain that, until Michael left the city.
The buzzer sounded, the team stormed off the court into the locker room and recited "The Lord’s Prayer," as led by Jackson. Someone prematurely popped a bottle of champagne, but nobody dove for the bubbly until the team was done with its moment. And nobody bothered Jordan as he moved to his own corner, his own gold world, to cradle the Lawrence O’Brien trophy, the season-ending token that he’d chased for too damn long.
Like all trophies, it was meaningless but symbolic. A representation of what he and Chicago had been chasing, even if most of us couldn’t pick Lawrence O’Brien out of a Watergate burglary lineup back then. The pride, even as I recall it over two decades later, still sweeps me away. The trophy was Jordan’s, but the moment was shared by all of us. The pain of all those losses and all those near-misses was immediately replaced by a feeling that I genuinely hope each of you experiences at some point in your life, whatever the influence.
Whatever took place before and continues to happen after that moment pales in comparison. Whether he knows it or not, while attempting to do something for himself, Michael Jordan did something for all of us.
— Kelly Dwyer
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